The zany quarter-of-a-trillionaire Elon Musk has purchased Twitter for $44 billion. The prospect of Musk’s hostile takeover of the social networking site has spawned visions of doom and the end of democracy from politicians and opinion journalists on the left and praise from the same types of people on the right. According to reports by tech journalists, rank-and-file Twitter employees are not taking the takeover well. I guess working for the meme man is going to cut into their anticapitalist cred at the next DSA meeting differently than working for a publically traded company where the controlling shareholders were investment banks.
Musk sees Twitter as a virtual version of the Hyde Park Speakers Corner. A place where everyone can share their views and nobody is removed as long as they do not say anything illegal. This is a noble and laudable goal. There is a key problem, it is completely incompatible with running a website.
Discussion forums need a gardener
In his seminal 2009 essay “Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism”, Eliezer Yudkowsky outlines what every person who has ever participated in a subreddit, chatroom, or message board knows: unmoderated forums do not work in the long run. When a place starts out, informal social control works to keep the peace. As the forum grows, those methods stop working. Someone comes who is only there to cause mischief and strife. If the community does not show the troll the door, more trolls will come and the people who made the website interesting will move on to greener pastures. People need to think an online space is fun to spend time there.
When you strike out to have a laissez-faire moderation policy, you are thinking of a tiny number of decisions that you have heard of and have discussed. Donald Trump’s Twitter account sucked up attention and commentary, but cases like it do not occupy more than a ten-thousandth of one percent of the time of Twitter Trust and Safety. While I have never talked with the Trust and Safety team at Twitter, I have a general idea of what issues they face due to my time as an Administrator, Functionary, and Arbitrator on the English Wikipedia. Most of their time is probably wrapped up in dealing with spam and harassment.
Spam and vandalism
There are whole categories of users who make a website less enjoyable. If you review the Wikipedia block log, you will see a pattern. Blocks for vandalism and spam are the most common. In a true free speech absolutist world, you will not be able to remove spam bots because they are not breaking any laws. Musk has been on the internet too long to not know this and he wants to crack down on spambots.
In addition to vandals and spammers, there is a whole category of absolutely terrible people that top-10 websites have to deal with. Most of what I have seen is covered under a firm non-disclosure agreement and a general sense that it is best to not discuss some things; however, Jeremy David Hanson was recently indicted for making rape and death threats against various people (including a sub-cabinet political appointee). I am not going to post examples of his threats due to their graphic nature; however, they are in the linked complaint.
I know Hanson as JarlaxleArtemis or Grawp. While the indictment only mentions events as far back as 2015, when the FBI interviewed him, Hanson’s antics go back to 2005. For the last 17 years, he has harassed Wikipedia users by threatening physical and sexual violence against them and their loved ones, leaked information about them, and attacked them around the internet. If you might have thought that the authorities and Hanson’s parents have been in the dark about this, you would be mistaken; they have known since 2008. This is the type of person that drives people away from your website.
The internet abhors a moderation vacuum
No matter how much Musk talks big about being a public square, Twitter can not be a public square if it does not tackle spam and harassment. Nobody is going to want to spend time at a place where they are indicated with sketchy Viagra advertisements, crypto scams, and called slurs in their replies. Even 4chan’s infamous /b/ board has more rules than “must not be illegal” to make the experience of using 4chan a positive one. The internet needs moderation. Maybe under Musk, Marjorie Taylor Greene will get her Twitter account back as a sitting member of the US House of Representatives, I strongly disagree with the common wisdom that much else will change about the moderation policies.